STRATTANVILLE – “Embrace who you are. You are uniquely made, beautiful and can excel in anything you want to do.”
That’s the inspirational message state Rep. Donna Oberlander (R-Clarion) left last Wednesday for nearly 20 sixth-grade girls at Clarion-Limestone Elementary School, where she served as a guest speaker for the school’s Ruling Our Experiences (ROX) program.
In its premier year at C-L Elementary, ROX is a research-based empowerment program for girls in grades 5-12 that covers topics from self-exploration and goal setting to empathy and conflict resolution and positive communication skills to social media, friendships, and verbal and physical self-defense.
“This is the first year that we are implementing the ROX curriculum so there have been some bumps and growing pains, but it has been a very positive experience overall,” C-L Elementary principal Kristie Taylor said, explaining that the 18 girls in the ROX program meet with a facilitator for 25 to 30 minutes once a week from October to May. “Our girls need this. They need an opportunity to talk about issues that they are struggling to navigate and be given tools and permission to be who they are.”
As part of the ROX curriculum, Taylor noted, the school was required to invite at least one guest speaker to address the students during the year.
“We wanted to invite Donna Oberlander because of her local connections, and because she is a positive role model as a trail-blazer and decision-maker,” Taylor said.
Oberlander began by highlighting her own life’s journey from an area elementary student participating in a mock presidential election, to a political science major at Clarion University, to a campaign worker for then state Rep. Fred McIlhattan, and then a Clarion County Commissioner, before being elected to her current position as state representative for the 63rd District. She told the students that all along the way her success depended on learning.
“I learned and learned some more,” she said. “Hard work and continuing to learn were all parts of my journey.”
After her introductory remarks, Oberlander spent time answering questions posed by the sixth-graders.
In response to a question whether she always knew what she wanted to be, Oberlander said that originally she had wanted to be an attorney. Although she ultimately made the decision not to become a lawyer, she said she still struggled with what she should do.
After her election to the state House, however, Oberlander said she realized that she didn’t need to be a lawyer because as a representative she is now making laws.
Another student asked how Oberlander chose her career.
“I think my career chose me. I was really into politics and at the right place at the right time,” Oberlander said, explaining that she was able to make the necessary connections and her early interest in politics got her involved in political campaigns in college.
“Sometimes what you think your dream is may change a little,” she continued, urging the young girls not to be afraid to take new opportunities as they arise. “But in every job you do, give it your best, learn and be open to other things that may happen.”
When asked to explain her job, Oberlander said that she is one of 203 state representatives in Harrisburg. Elected to serve the 63,000 to 65,000 constituents of the 63rd District — which includes Clarion County and parts of Armstrong and Forest counties — her responsibilities not only include enacting, repealing and writing laws, but also helping residents “cut red tape,” fix problems and address issues.
Most recently, Oberlander was appointed as policy chairman for the Republican Caucus. She is the first woman to hold such a position in the history of Pennsylvania.
“We [women] are blazing trails, and I love being able to do that,” she said, noting that when she was first elected to leadership as the secretary, it marked the first time the state had ever had two women leaders in a caucus at the same time. “It’s a really fun, new part of my job.”
In fact, she told the students, there are currently 51 women in the House of Representatives — the largest number of women the House has ever had.
“It’s funny because there’s this impression that female legislators only focus on female issues,” Oberlander said. “I represent 65,000 people. It’s my desire to represent all of them and all their issues; not just women’s issues or men’s issues, but our issues.”
Oberlander noted in response to another question that the primary inspiration for her job stems from being born and raised in Clarion County and feeling like the people she represents are like her.
“I want to do what’s best for the people I represent so they have the opportunity to stay here and build a family and work here,” she said. “It’s also important to me that my children have those opportunities.”